Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Walnut Street Theatre

Also see Tim's review of Rock Doves

Josh Young and Amy Toporek
The Walnut's new production of Hairspray is a reason to dance in the aisles. John Waters' inspiring tale of Tracy Turnblad, the endearing outsider whose goal is simply to dance on a 1962 teenage dance TV show—and, while she's at it, integrate the races and land the boy of her dreams—receives a loving and exuberant production, thanks to director Charles Abbott and a very strong cast.

The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is a ridiculously catchy and clever salute to various 1960s pop styles, and the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan nearly matches it in invention, rarely failing to provoke laughs even when it slips into crassness and self-righteousness. The characters aren't realistic in the least, but the show's emphasis on the civil rights struggle of the era shows that it never forgets that there's something more important than being the best dancer in town.

The Walnut's cast is strongest in its supporting roles, giving plenty of talented actors a chance to shine. Where to begin? How about with Liz Kimball's moping, stoop-shouldered and hilarious performance as Tracy's best friend Penny, or with Neil Totten's lively take on Penny's loose-limbed savior, Seaweed. Denise Whelan and Kate Fahrner are delightfully evil as the racist villains, and Ben Dibble brings smarm and charm to the role of the oily TV host. Josh Young straps on an acoustic guitar and does his best Elvis as the hunk who croons the doo-wop styled "It Takes Two," and Joliet F. Harris stops the show with her emotional take on the gospel number "I Know Where I've Been." Domonique Paton displays an impressive belt as Seaweed's sister, and Connie Shafer is nicely showcased in a number of acerbic supporting roles.

Are there any failings? Well, since Hairspray focuses on the eccentric Turnblad family, I would have appreciated a family that I could root for more. Amy Toporek (as Tracy) and Michael Walker (who performs in drag as her mother Edna) sing and dance well, but they don't quite have the star power that their outsized roles deserve. As dad Wilbur, Peter Schmitz overdoes the Ed Wynn-style wackiness; his Wilbur lacks the sweetness that Dick Latessa brought to the role on Broadway. Mary Jane Houdina's choreography is excellent, although too many of the numbers take place near the front of the stage before sliding doors that don't give the dancers enough room to strut their stuff. Director Abbott rushes the cast a bit too quickly through some of the book's more vicious, John Waters-style jokes. Finally, I've never been happy with the show's ending, which crams in the only two sub-par songs ("Cooties" and the title song) on the way to a ridiculous and too-raucous finale.

But these are minor complaints about a "feel-good" show that actually does make you feel good. Hairspray spoofs the '60s and its styles but with a lot of affection and intelligence, which is what makes it so rewarding and lovable.

Hairspray runs through January 4, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at or, or by visiting the box office.

Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the New Line Cinema film written by John Waters
Directed by Charles Abbott
Music and Vocal Director ... Douglass G. Lutz
Set Designer ... Robert Andrew Kovach
Costume Designer ... Colleen Grady
Lighting Designer ... Paul Black
Sound Designer ... Ryk Lewis
Stage Managers ... Lori Aghazarian, Debi Marcucci

Tracy Turnblad ... Amy Toporek
Corny Collins ... Ben Dibble
Edna Turnblad ... Michael Walker
Penny Pingleton ... Liz Kimball
Velma Von Tussle ... Denise Whelan
Amber Von Tussle ... Kate Fahrner
Link Larkin ... Josh Young
Seaweed J. Stubbs ... Neil Totton
Li'l Inez ... Domonique Paton
Motormouth Mabel ... Joliet F. Harris
Wilbur Turnblad ... Peter Schmitz
Prudy Pingleton / Gym Teacher / Matron... Connie Shafer
Mr. Pinky / Harriman F. Spritzer... John-Charles Kelly
Gilbert ... Devin L. Roberts
Thad ... Stanley Martin
Council Members:
Tammy ... Beth Wheeler
Brad ... Joe Jackson
Brenda ... Kerri Rose
Sketch ... Sean Bell
Shelley ... Regan Kays
IQ ... Brian Golub
Lou Ann ... Nikki Curmaci
The Dynamites:
Judine ... Marisa Kennedy
Kamilah ... Danielle Herbert
Shayna ... Kalia Lynne
Ensemble ... Kennen Butler, Crystal Sha'nae, Alex Michael Stoll, Sean Bell, Nikki Curmaci, Brian Golub, Danielle Herbert, Joe Jackson, Regan Kays, Marisa Kennedy, Kalia Lynne, Stanley Martin, Devin L. Roberts, Kerri Rose, Beth Wheeler

Photo: Brett Thomas

-- Tim Dunleavy

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